Diving in: Lawrenceville instructor shares how to experience underwater wonders

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Terry Smart considers scuba diving most incredible when a shrimp the size of a toothpick crawls onto your finger and begins nibbling off dead skin cells.

That's a wonderment the certified diving instructor from Lawrenceville hopes his students will some day experience, depths beyond his beginner lessons each month at Collins Hill Aquatics Center.

"That first time," he said of interacting in the shrimp's exotic undersea world, "is an experience you'll take with you to the grave."

Smart, 50, has filled the past decade of his life with what he considers increasingly incredible underwater experiences he'll gladly help prepare anyone for. All they need is the will to learn and the money to get started.

Smart himself learned to dive at Collins Hill, where he'd been a lap swimmer before spotting a sign publicizing beginner class in 2000. He got certified that year, became an instructor in '03 and began teaching at Collins Hill in '04.

He said students, usually 10 or fewer in a class, sign up by paying $99 to the pool and $60 to him for a dive manual and a dive planning computer about the size of a pocket calculator. Sign-ups generally are a few weeks before classes that run from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Students must read five chapters and take knowledge quizzes prior to classroom lesson in a studio at Smart's home from 8:30 to about 11:30, before afternoon water time at Collins Hill from 1 to about 6. Classes usually are held monthly during all but the coldest months, with a few advanced open water sessions and a couple Discover Scuba parties sprinkled in. Tanks, weight belts, wet suits, etc. are provided for students, though participants must bring or rent masks, fins and snorkels.

Like those taking swimming lessons at Collins Hill, Smart said his students -- teens through senior citizens -- set out with varying amounts of confidence. Classes begin in Collins Hill's shallow water and progress to the deep end. Ultimately, students make certification dives, and sometimes take exotic scuba trips with Smart.

Smart said one student initially feared simply putting her face in the water.

"Some are so worried and not sure they can do it, and in the end, can't believe they made it through," he said. "I make them a promise that if they don't quit, I can get them through it.

"It's at first an unnatural feeling," Smart added of the unique breathing needed in scuba. "You're so used to breathing through our nose and mouth, but in scuba diving, you breath only through your mouth. Some people, though, do it like they've been doing it all their lives."

Student Rebecca Cameron of Braselton began taking lessons so she could use a gift certificate to dive at the Georgia Aquarium. A self-termed claustrophobe, she initially struggled to overcome the feeling of pressure under water. Now, she can't get enough of the sport and has gone on several of Smart's trips.

"Terry was supportive of my fear and was really, really calming," said Cameron, 25. "It's a weird feeling you're being squished. There's pressure on your chest."

Chris Drake, 36, who initially learned while a student at Virginia Tech, sought out Smart for refresher lessons and to gain his advanced open water certification. Now, he's working toward his rescue certification.

"(Learning in a pool) is a little more comforting, knowing the surface isn't that far away," the Sandy Spring resident explained. "You don't move into the deeper end until you're pretty comfortable with things."

A Master Trainer, Smart has dived all over the Caribbean, Mexico, the Bahamas and Cayman Islands, and takes advanced students with him. He just returned from West Palm Beach, Fla., where he had seven students doing open water check-out dives.

Smart said the excitement of spotting some 25 sea turtles keeps him coming back to such places.

"What brings me the most fulfillment is sharing the passion I have and exposing people to parts of the earth they usually never see," Smart said. "These are wonders they'll keep with them for a lifetime."